The politics of fest 'donations'

To pay or not to pay, that is the question facing fest-goers

  • People use a map to navigate the opening day of the 2012 Chicago Blues Festival in downtown Chicago on Friday, June 8, 2012. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)
People use a map to navigate the opening day of the 2012 Chicago Blues Festival…
June 15, 2012|Taylor Ervin | For RedEye

Nearly every weekend from now until September, at least one strip of Chicago's streets will be clogged as the Windy City's dozens of festivals take over the thoroughfares for the summer. Hot spots like Wicker Park will surrender their streets many more times, and for most of the city's residents, that's a great thing.

McKinley Park resident Justin Kerr, however, isn't sold on the idea. It's not the festivals themselves that get the 42-year-old web developer's blood boiling. It's their so called suggested donations, which Kerr asserts are increasingly being treated as more of a mandatory entrance fee.

"They channel you through these long lines, and everything is presented as if it's an
admittance fee and that you have to pay. They are not being presented as suggested donations, and they are making people feel pressured or obliged to pay," Kerr said. "Folks aren't aware that they don't actually have to pay."

Kerr was so upset by his recent encounters at the Taste of Randolph Street that he took to Everyblock.com, a community based social media site, to vent his rage. Kerr's post elicited 53 responses with commenters landing on both sides of the aisle; some sympathetic to Kerr's plight, others telling him to suck it up and pay the 5 bucks.

The facts are clear. Charging patrons to enter any street festival is illegal.
"You can't charge admission to the public way," said Cindy Gatziolis, public relations officer for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

Furthermore festivals are required to post signage at the entrance stating that the festival is free, she said. If the event decides to accept donations, they must post signage explaining how the donations will be used.

Ed Bannon, executive director of the Six Corners Association which organizes the 2-year-old BBQ Fest in Portage Park, said without donations, the fest, which takes place this weekend, simply could not exist.

"We're not trying to twist anybody's arm, and it's not like we are creating any kind of slush fund," Bannon said. "We couldn't put the fest on without the donations."

Last year, BBQ Fest raked in about $29,000 in donations, which when combined with other revenue still wasn't enough to even cover the cost of the festival.

Some festivals approach the donation model more aggressively than others. Do Division Fest, Wicker Park's annual music fest, trains its volunteers to approach every person who walks into the fest, which often creates long lines and, for some patrons, can increase the pressure to donate.

Festival organizer Kara Salgado, executive director of the West Town Chamber of Commerce, said there have been instances where festival goers have complained that some of the donation-takers have acted too aggressively.

Perhaps that's why Do Division has become so successful. Last year it pulled in $100,000 from donations, yet Salgado estimates that still only about one in every three festival-goers actually donated.

In many cases the large sums of money accrued by these festivals is funneled directly back into the community. Twenty-one percent of the proceeds from Do Division go directly to three local elementary schools. Similarly, BBQ fest donates a portion of its proceeds to local community organizations, schools and the YMCA.

"I wish people understood that those donations usually are going towards covering expenses to produce the event or going to non-profits and schools in the neighborhood," Salgado said. "That's why our events are so locally focused."

Taylor Ervin is a RedEye special contributor.

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